Communication skills turning managers into leaders

Innovation as a Strategy and Not a “One-Off” Event

All organizations should fully embrace innovation around the customer experience. In reality, strategic innovation is driven by the customer’s needs. Do your employees know how to play the Innovator Card – and will you support it and work to develop it?

I just read an article advocating for innovation as an integral part of a company’s strategy and not as a one-off “science project” undertaken by a few eager beavers.

The premise is that sustainable, strategic innovation is driven by changing customer needs and preferences.  In other words, customers keep companies on their toes by not allowing them to be too inwardly focused on operations rather than paying attention to the customer.

I’ve seen this happen more than a few times.  Some companies are driven more by inertia than market forces.  In the best case, a person in the company will start paying attention to customers – maybe after some really bad customer complaints – and decides to do something about it.  If this isn’t embraced by management, it can come off as weird or disruptive to the status quo and will likely be underfunded and half-hearted.

Any half-hearted approach to quelling customer complaints is not a sustainable solution.  It is not a strategy aimed at continuous learning and improvement.

Innovation needs to built in, not built on!  It should be a pervasive and rewarded expectation rather than something that happens on top of an employee’s business-as-usual job.

I work with a company that has gone through several ownership changes in recent years.  These changes really shake things up and turn everyone’s focus inward as they try to survive the sea change.

I heard one senior manager complain, “Customers, what customers?  I’m just trying to figure out where my office is and who my boss is!!”

Finally, the new boss did emerge and started asking tough questions about customer expectations, industry trends, and lots of outward-looking technologies the company knew nothing about.  This company brought us in to audit their culture around innovation driven by customer expectations.

Our audit results and recommendations focused on building and rewarding a culture of innovation.  It became an expectation that customer and supplier feedback be integrated into conversations in every unit of the company.

In Card Talk terms, our recommendations made it OK – even expected – for people to play an “Innovator Card.”  It allowed them to drive meetings about specific customer comments related to product performance.  They would review industry trends and get more educated about new technologies that might work to meet customer expectations.  Not as a one-off, but as the new normal in business analysis.

Such Innovation Games were missing before.  They were even frowned upon.  So, what’s required to play the Innovation Game?  Here is a list:

  1. Let customers play their Customer Cards. Listen to them about all aspects of their customer experience.  Dig into their thoughts and make sure everyone is paying attention as a routine part of work.
  2. Make it OK to play the Innovator Card. Most people don’t know how to, or even want to learn how to play this card.  Training is may be required to present staff with customer problems and create teams to imagine a better future for the customer experience.  The process moves forward until concrete proposals are presented and evaluated.
  3. Get up to speed about what’s happening out there. What new technologies are bubbling up that might be relevant?  Ask people to read something or watch some videos.  Make learning a part of the culture.
  4. Make playing Innovation Games a routine part of life. Sure, people have plenty of work to do.  But the Innovation Game is exciting!  It’s fun to peek over the horizon and imagine a better future.  It gives purpose to work.

So, if your organization is slogging around looking for a breakthrough, be intentional and make it happen.  The first step is changing the way people communicate around innovation!

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